Rubin: How fawning over athletes becomes ‘drink bleach’

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

A high school kid from Farmington Hills announced last week what college he won’t be attending.

In June, the kid had conducted a news conference to declare that he would be enrolling next year at the University of Alabama. His decision was so momentous that it was broadcast by ESPN.

Now he has changed his mind, and that’s news, too.

Meantime, in Ann Arbor, the athletic director at the University of Michigan had to write an open letter to remind people that it’s not right to tell a 22-year-old graduate student to “jump off of a cliff into a pool of spikes and cyanide.”

The kid and the 22-year-old are both football players.

At this stage of his life, we’re paying far too much attention to the younger one. Clearly, some people are paying the wrong kind of attention to the older one. And you have to wonder if the premature fawning has something to do with the immature maligning.

If we’re investing this heavily in athletes when they’re barely old enough to drive, maybe we’re a trifle overinvested by the time they’re performing for us on television. As in, “@blakewoneill I hate you. I. Hate. You.”

Blake O’Neill, or @blakewoneill in his disconnected Twitter account, is the punter whose mistakes at the end of the game allowed Michigan State to beat Michigan on Saturday.

The kid has a name, too, but to people who’ve never met him, it’s not as important as some of his numbers: No. 9 among all prospects in Michigan, according to one of the websites created by adults to track the progress and potential of teenagers. No. 19 among strong-side defensive ends.

In the overblown and over-amped world of major college sports, his pledge to Alabama is known as a “verbal commitment,” and it’s not worth the paper it’s not printed on.

In fact, the same kid verbally committed to Michigan State in February. Then he changed his mind for the first time, a process so commonplace that it has a name, “decommitting.”

A difficult decision

As for why the kid has decommitted twice already when he’s only halfway through his senior season, there’s a simple explanation:

He’s a child.

So are many of the players we watch on Saturday afternoons. It’s easy to forget that when they have tattoos and 19-inch necks, but a lot of them aren’t old enough to drink and a few can’t even vote.

It’s perfectly understandable that the kid from Farmington Hills is wavering on where he wants to spend the next four or five years of his life, especially since it’s so difficult to reverse his decision once he shows up on campus.

Coaches are free to chase the next shiny object. Win a few games, get a higher-paying offer from a bigger school and off they go, contract be damned.

The teenagers they recruited are held to a higher standard. If they transfer, they’ll typically have to sit out a year of competition at their new school, often without a scholarship.

The kid needs to weigh his options carefully.

The question is, why do we need to watch him do it?

Absurd, pointless process

The process used to be quieter. Kids fielded calls and letters from coaches, visited a few campuses and picked a school.

Then came off-season camps and shoe companies and a few people who figured out that the most zealous fans of specific college teams would pay for newsletters about which kids were considering which universities.

Now that business is so enormous that one of the major online services sold for a reported $100 million.

It’s absurd — and largely pointless — to rate middle-schoolers and predict how they’ll grow and play six or eight years from now. Some blue-chippers turn into stars, and some turn into assistant managers at Foot Locker.

But lists get made and kids hold press conferences and rooters get ever more invested in their teams.

Players get labeled as failures because they don’t measure up to expectations established as high school juniors, social media makes venting both easy and ordinary, and Blake O’Neill gets invited to “drink bleach.”

As for the kid from Farmington Hills, he visited Notre Dame over the weekend. He said he liked it.